Poetry Sunday: “Conservatory,” by Idris Anderson

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

What a great title! Even before I read this poem, my mind was alive with poems from the great poet Theodore Roethke, whose childhood backyard included an old glass conservatory, missing panes and all. Those old steel-and-glass, barrel-roofed structures are a trope in English literature, and not just in Agatha Christie. The word “conservatory” evokes a hothouse world, one of fecundity and warmth in contrast to frigid conditions outside. It also makes me think of a school offering instruction in the fine arts, and of a room for storing jars of jewel-colored jams made from stewed fruit. More abstractly, it might be any place where things of value are protected and preserved (conserved). That’s an effective strategy, choosing a title that multiplies associations in the reader’s mind even before the poem is read. It makes me curious to see where Anderson will go from here: Will the poem involve any of these things, or instead, play off of my expectations and surprise me?

“Conservatory” consists of 36 lines arranged into 4-line stanzas (quatrains) that are unrhymed and are metered, although the metrical pattern is not always strictly enforced. Most lines have 4 or 5 strong beats, and about a third scan as iambic pentameter, or five beats arranged in patterns of stressed following unstressed beats called iambs (x /) or anapests (x x /). Another third is strongly trochaic, reversing the stress pattern so that stresses precede unstressed beats, using either trochees (/ x) or dactyls (/ x x). I was not able to assign a prevailing meter to the remaining lines; some began in a rising meter (iambic) and ended in a falling meter (trochaic), or vice versa, and a few otherwise strongly iambic lines ended not on the stressed syllable we expect but on an unstressed syllable, as in “with the miniature motor can be disassembled” in line 5.

Such endings are called “feminine endings,” found in about two-thirds of the lines of this poem. When I asked her about it, Anderson described the meter as  “predominately pentameter” and “irregular pentameter, accentual,” saying she counts accents rather than making regular feet and is willing to sacrifice metrical regularity when it serves the poem as a whole. The meter is clearly sculpted and yet still sounds like ordinary (if thoughtful, measured) speech, resulting in a poem that is shapely and formal, but not stilted. I love that, and also appreciate the flexibility that allows different readers to emphasize words in lines differently depending on their individual reading.

With all that in mind, let’s read the poem for meaning. Given my early musings about the title, I was delighted with that opening reference to sugar dissolved in water—the first step in making jams and preserves, sometimes called “conserves.” Stanza 1, though, has more to do with the broader notion of conservation, summed up in line 5’s “conservation of matter.” That’s a scientific term, of course, for the idea that the quantity of matter in the universe is a constant. That is, matter changes in form but the amount of it never changes.

Riffing on this idea, the first stanza presents the same matter in variant forms: processed “sugar” and also as raw cane and maple sap. The speaker is noticing how in our personal experience, matter often does not feel like it is being conserved or remaining constant. When we loan a cup of sugar, we never see it again. Although we understand in some abstract way that it will dissolve into atoms and get reconstituted as cane plants or maple trees, the fact remains that any particular cup of sugar—its unique corporality—never comes back to us again.

Trying to work out what the conservation of matter means in individual human experience, the speaker tries another example: a toy car that has been assembled incorrectly. The law of conservation of matter does not mean, she tells us, that it is possible to take it apart and reassemble the car as if the first attempt had never happened. Even if the overall quantity of matter remains constant in the universe, each encounter with a sample of it in the world is unique and cannot be replicated. In the case of the toy, the first assembly attempt broke something (“split the wood”), and so the car can’t just be taken apart and put back together as if that hadn’t happened. Every action matters and you don’t always get a second shot at things, a “hard lesson” that can be learned only through experience.

Stanza four states it plainly: “Things / that are done can’t be undone.” That statement immediately gets qualified, a move cued by the word “except. One thing in life that can be undone is in changing how we think about the “matters / that matter.” I love this wordplay, using “matter” first as a noun and then as a verb, and also the way it gets brought back again near the end of the poem as “These are / the matters that matter that are not ephemeral” (lines 33-34). For the speaker, the things that matter are “race and politics” and  “love and death.” In poetry, it is not just every word that is important (“best words”) but also their sequence (“in the best order”)—thank you, Samuel Coleridge. From the word order here, I infer race and politics to be as crucial as love and death to the speaker, and that within those pairs, race matters more than politics and love more than death.

In any event, the set of expectations I had before reading the poem has now been whittled down to the notion of a conservatory in the most abstract sense—a place that preserves and protects things of value. And at this point I am getting the idea that today’s poem may itself be just such a place.

Stanza five continues with the notion that we have the power to change our minds about the things that matter, something that itself “matters” quite a lot because, as the poem reminds us, what we individually think has the collective power to “change the world.” Now, that last statement is a grandiose one and even a cliché, something the speaker shows she is more than aware of when she says (in a line that made me smile) “but not tomorrow.” This is an effective way to use cliché in poetry—with complete awareness that what is being said is an old trope, but still harnessing the power of the original utterance before it got stale. I tell students not to avoid clichés entirely, but to use them in ways that refresh them, and this is one such strategy: state the cliché, but state it with a verbal wink.

Stanza five gets more serious, reminding us about things far more serious than loaned-out sugar or badly-assembled toy cars that, likewise, cannot be “undone.” One is the racial history of our country that includes white police brutality targeting “young black men.” “You can’t stop” each shooting, the poem says, then—showing awareness of current events—names the states in which such shootings have recently occurred. But instead of despairing, the poem offers hope. Some things we cannot change, but one thing we do have power over is the way we see, “think about,” or respond to things—the message of the Serenity Prayer. The poem goes a giant step further to assert that changing individual thinking does have the power, over time, to change the whole world.

In a big turn in the middle of stanza 5, the speaker leaves off talking about large ideas like race, politics, love, and death to introduce a more intimate example of another kind of attempted conservation: longing for someone we’ve lost, hoping in some way to recover them. Like the cup of sugar, we cannot retrieve our lost loved ones in the unique corporeal form in which we knew them. Again, though, after stating a hard and difficult truth, the poem does not abandon all hope. The sugar does return as new cane or sap, and we can save our memories: “words once dropped into air, the shape of a gesture.” That last line reminds me very much of one from “One Art,” Elizabeth Bishop’s wonderful villanelle about loss: “—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture / I love) I shan’t have lied.” You can read the poem in full here.

At this point “Conservatory” has mapped out a kind of Venn diagram of conservatories, the largest, all-encompassing circle being the great conservatory of natural law that keeps the quantity of matter forever constant. Within that lies the circle of mind and memory; each person’s mind its own Museum of Lost Things. Overlapping it is the circle representing art, in and by which some things that are lost can be saved, not just for that artist or their audience, but also for future generations. As the speaker says outright in line 29, “And isn’t this what art is?” In the Venn diagram of conservatories drawn by this poem, the last, smallest circle lies inside the circle of art and is, of course, this poem.

Stanzas six and seven focus on art as a conservatory for lost things, noting that what most moves us is in art is what captures the ineffable: the rests in the music, the blank spots on the canvas, the spaces between lines in a poem. Oh, how I love that “breathless blankness / where everything is happening,” a pitch-perfect example of sound and sense working together to get the most out of a line! What’s been lost can never be completely recovered; you can’t ever again put that toy truck together for the first time, with all its parts intact. But when we lose people we love, the shape of the space made by their absence can be framed by and contained in a piece of art, allowing us at least to “conserve” our memories of them. For T.S. Eliot, art is a bulwark against loss and time, “these fragments I have shored against my ruins.” Similarly, in “Conservatory,” art can “sustain and hold you together when / you and the world are falling apart.” I am profoundly grateful for that, and for today’s poem.

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